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Making animations with children

by Stuart Taylor

(Supply Teacher at St Michael's School Steventon, Winner of the Best Junior Award at BIAFF 2008 for Our Environment is Important)

In 1964 I won the BIAFF Daily Mail Challenge Trophy for the Best Amateur Movie of the Year with the film Locked Up ………, well perhaps that is stretching the point a bit, I was merely a 13 year old actor. The main credit needs to go to Peter Ryde and John Charlesworth my teachers. Spalding Grammar School was a strongly academic institution yet they valued a practical approach to the arts and recognised the challenges and rewards it offered children.

It was a lesson that I never forgot and when I started teaching I went on an animation workshop and learned stop frame techniques on Super8 cameras. This started two arguments. The first was with the teachers' centre about how often I had the camera on loan. The second was that living in Hemel Hempstead, near Kodak would save a fortune in postage!

Filming demands discipline and patience, a big "hidden" curriculum bonus, but animation, not live action appeals to me. Children love cartoons which immediately motivates them and by working through characters rather than "that's me on screen" they focus more on movement and story.

Children are inspiring filmmakers but need lots of hands on experience to understand the processes involved and start to develop a visual vocabulary. I spend a lot of time using paper and pencil methods at first.

phenakistoscope1 Phenakistoscope2
Children use the dots as markers for their drawings e.g. a dot is an eye or a tummy button or a mouth etc. Images are drawn in black, coloured in, then the circle is cut out and pasted onto black card. The circle is trimmed again; the slots cut out and then viewed in a mirror, looking through the slots as the disc slowly spins round.
Older children can draw their picture on a graphics program, import it into Word, rotate it in format picture (30o multiples for 12 dots, 32.7o multiples for 11 dots 27.8o for 13 dots) then slide into position over, or next to a dot.

Super 8 filming was fun and involved great versatility. We made 3D sets out of giant cardboard boxes, pinned sheets to boards, taped them onto floors, used 2D cut outs (sometimes articulated with split pins), liberated models from the infants eg peg dolls 1,2,3 Away Reading scheme models or toys and tried things out. We also used stop frame on real objects e.g. food dancing on a plate, a child dragged along by a car when trying to lose a bad tooth, "floating" in mid air, a Volkwagen Beetle "eating" a child.

I gradually put together my own battered collection of cameras, tripods, lights, splicing equipment and editing screens. This meant that we could leave equipment and come back to sets over a longer period. Many of the children's films were sent off to the CO-OP children's film festival (www.youngfilm-makers.coop/). They not only supported and encouraged film making, but also reimbursed some of the cost of the film! Many films were shown at Bradford or the South Bank which was a great experience and some children even appeared on Saturday Kids TV.

There were major drawbacks however. From my point of view editing was a nightmare because young children found it very difficult. My hands are the size of dinner plates so gluing or taping joints was a frustrating. Midget, low powered, editing screens also meant I often put the editing hole in the wrong frame. Worst of all was the long delay between filming and getting the film returned and if a sequence was faulty then re-filming or continuity became big issues.

Time to film was always an issue but when I became head-teacher new initiatives (initially the National Curriculum, then the kitchen sink) dramatically increased paperwork and opportunities for filming became less frequent. This was frustrating but at the same time computers were being introduced and I was asked to trial Research Machines' software and a digital to analogue converter to record the films onto video tape. It was very cumbersome but worth the effort because films could be viewed in real time and results recorded and taken home!

Many of my films now have computer technology at their heart, though I do use a digital movie camera as well. The film Our Environment is Important, which won the BIAFF 2008 Best Junior award, was made entirely on computer using simple software and a simple technique.

1. Using black card we made outlines of objects eg insects, fish, people which were coloured by tissue paper "stained glass" style.

2. These were scanned as .bmp files and then "cleaned" to remove spots and make sure that backgrounds were white, not grey.

Fish

3. Tissue paper was then placed on the scanner simply to create backgrounds

Background

4. Research Machines' Colour Magic) software has a "Stamp" facility. White becomes transparent, hence the white backgrounds.

5. Children load a background and then load a character into "Stamp".

6. It is stamped on the background in position 1 and saved as Image1.

Stamped

7. Fortunately "Stamp", can be undone to leave an empty background. The image is then stamped in a new position and saved as Image 2

8. By repeating this "Stamp, Save, Undo" sequence children quickly make a series of frames.

Sequence

9. Using "wizards" (easy step by step instructions) in programmes that are readily available in schools (2Animate, Logomotion, Revelation Art) frames can be turned into Gifs or Avi files.

10. The process is so quick that children have the opportunity to review their sequences or even redo them. Effectively children make manageable mini-films which can be checked, edited and saved quite easily. Longer complicated sequences are much more difficult for children to manage and adults often take over.

11. If all the children are working within a common theme their mini films they can be linked together in Adobe Premier Elements.

12. Once children have mastered the skills in making mini films they can also be used in much smaller scale projects e.g. to illustrate stories in PowerPoint and so can develop their skills further.

Three films I have made with children are on Google Video. Go to www.video.google.com and search for Purple Spaceships, Lummy Days or Our Environment is Important.
What you will also see are films of varying "quality". The speech marks are deliberate because quality depends on your point of view. Recent judging comments have been

Judges have criteria against which all films, whoever made them, have to be assessed so they are totally fair and I am not being critical. I however am proud of the fact that the judges recognised there was a lot of fun for the film-makers. That for me is the point.

I have recently retired so I am now working with children who do not have experience of film making. They get excited by funny things you can make happen on screen and special effects. They all want to have a go and I include every child's work even if the standard is not brilliant. Children need to experiment before starting to add more visual discipline and develop storylines etc. I could impose my ideas, but is it then a junior entry or an adult entry made by juniors? My aim is for children and teachers to learn something about filming and go on to other projects - and fun is an important element. In a way the success of  Our Environment is Important was a happy accident rather than a planned outcome.

The big question for IAC/BIAFF if they wish to encourage film making by youngsters is whether a competition or a festival is the right format. In reality few junior films will be able to compete against adult films in a competition format. Equally there are many existing children's film festivals that make selections based on effort, imagination and intention as opposed to outcome and so is another needed?

The conundrum is that the IAC needs to promote film making by youngsters to develop future talent. My suggestions, for what they are worth, are

I still treasure my Locked Up video. It is a valuable resource as children are not only amazed at what I looked like at 13 years old, they are also fascinated by seeing a 1960s school. You may not win the Daily Mail Cup, you may not get many stars in a local or national competition, but you may inspire one child to make films, and that is important in itself.

Stuart Taylor,      May 2008


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Page updated on 11 October 2011
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